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NAN: Dealing with Serious Illness in the Family

Depending on a child’s age, children will respond differently to illness. A child’s understanding and response to a serious illness or terminal disease, like cancer, of a family member can vary depending on the child’s age.

Children under the age of three have no real understanding of illness, though they may sense sadness or anxiety related to the illness of a family member. During this stage of development children may respond to an environment where they sense something is wrong by becoming irritable and experiencing changes in their eating and sleeping patterns. 

Since children take their cues from adults, keeping routines consistent and modeling healthy coping behaviors can provide support to the child.  Maintaining as much consistency as possible will help the child to feel safe and secure. 

When caring for older children nannies can encourage them to make cards for sick close family members, do puppet shows and role plays with them to help them to talk about their feelings and do special activities with them so that they don’t feel that they are being ignored. 

Talking about the illness in an age-appropriate way and reassuring the child that their emotions are okay will help him to feel safe and in control. Children have vivid imaginations and when an illness is not discussed, they are left to come to their own understanding of what reality is. When trusted adults do not provide children with enough information they may worry that they caused the illness or that every minor ailment is a sign that they have it too. 

Nannies and parents should discuss how the nanny should address a family member’s illness with the family’s children. The parents and nanny’s level of comfort as well as the children’s needs should be taken into consideration when devising a strategy for telling the child about the illness and helping him to cope with it.

Michelle LaRoweNAN: Dealing with Serious Illness in the Family